In South America, we have come to name the concept of political polarization “la grieta” or “the rift.” In its own, unique ways, it has expressed itself over the past two decades in Argentina and Brazil. But now, we see that we have exported our brand of social and political antagonism to the Northern Hemisphere, as it has reared its ugly head both in Europe and the United States.
Polarization has become a winning electoral strategy but it ends up generating a nasty vicious cycle. It is perfected when the party that is in power, looking to increase its electoral possibilities, antagonizes with its most distant opponent. It therefore erodes governing capacity by limiting negotiation and consensus building with the political opposition.
If the full responsibility of having led the nation into decadence over the past few years is pinned by the incumbent on his opposition, it becomes impossible to build trust. Democracy is defined by alternation in power, meaning that sooner or later those who were considered incompetent and corrupt will return to the seat of power.
THE ATTRACTIVENESS OF MORAL REPUGNANCE.
Freud explained it perfectly in The Taboo of Virginity and later in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego: “Nothing encourages feelings of strangeness and hostility between people as much as minor differences. It tempts me to dig into this idea, because perhaps out of that narcissism of minor differences emerges the hostility that is present in all human relationships that fights against fraternal feelings. Within intimate groups: friendship, marriage, parental relationships with children, mistrust and hostile feelings compete with affections.” In his work The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, Michael Ignatieff wrote about the paradoxical relationship between aggression and narcissism: “The expression of differences becomes aggressive precisely to disguise that they are minor.”
“The less essential the differences between two groups, the more they both insist on presenting them as an absolute fact,” Ignatieff adds. “The aggression that maintains the unity of the group is not only directed outwards but also inwards in order to eliminate everything that separates the individual from the group.”
“Nearby towns,” he wrote, “are the rivals that are most envied; there is no small canton that does not look at its neighbor with distrust. The Germans of the South do not support those of the North, the English blame all the defects on the Scots, and the Spaniards despise the Portuguese. The smaller the differences seem to the external observer, the greater their importance may be for the definition of those inside.”
As Freud explained, antagonistic personalities are tied to narcissism. Freud acknowledged and linked the intensity of anxiety that accompanies a process of differentiation and the consequential overreaction of minor differences that are meant to reinforce identity. It is due to fear that identity or personality will be diluted by perceiving that what is shared is greater than what differentiates.
Overestimating what is owned and undervaluing what is alien is part of a defense mechanism against a false integrity of the “Ego” that is derived from the intolerance to continue existing. For Freud, nationalism—and domestically sectarianism or group pride—represents an egotistical dimension of a narcissistic projection that only contemplates others in order to confirm they are different.
Gordian knots are not untied from within, but rather require the construction of a new identity built on alternative foundations that would allow one to acknowledge that what appears horrific about the other is in fact our own resemblance to him. This is precisely the basis of manipulative discourse, a conceptual and categorial scam through which the small is blown up while the large is concealed.
Nothing new under the sun: in Genesis we already witness how brothers are transformed into enemies, indicating that the beginning of humanity was marked by the murder of one’s own kin rather than a stranger.
It is God who punishes the murderer, Cain, by banishing him from Eden. Cast out of Paradise, Cain and his descendents built the peoples and nations of the real world, founded by a murderer and thus having to work harder to overcome spiraling logic of revenge. “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.”
POLITICAL ARTHRITIS AND POLARIZATION
Truth is found in mediation and reconciliation. Harmony is the state of being in order. We cannot have economic order unless there is harmony. The relationship between the Latin verbs spectare and respectare—the former referring to “spectacle” and the latter to “respect”—reflects the contrast between a society disposed to scandal and another structured around rational public debate.
The cost of entertainment is paid by the economy, as a society of scandal is also one of anger, preventing fruitful dialogue between the mutually outraged. That altered emotional state bars action and therefore progress, a “double negativity” that nullifies itself.
Energy ends up consumed in a “storm of excrement” thrown from one side to the other. A crisis of the collective spirit emerges that obstructs the creation of an inclusive “we” representative of a majority of society.
If a word were picked to define history, it would be “action.” For Hannah Arendt, action was about determining a starting point, a new beginning, about doing things differently. We have political arthritis in that we are incapacitated to change anything beyond faces and concepts, but we continue to act the same. Modifying symbols (“signifier”) while failing to replace meaning (“signified”). We have a problem of emotional intelligence.
Polarization is a consequence of narcissism, of the need to build identity calling attention to differences. It is the fear of merging with another and diluting, as seen with teenagers who—their ego still fragile—overreact the behaviors of the tribe they follow, in autoerotic indulgence. A biased and partial “we” built on fear and insecurity.
DEPRESSION IS NEGATIVE NARCISISM
In its emptiness, depression causes the non-permanent to penetrate the self as if it were an eternal present: if the dollar rises, it will rise tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Information, therefore, is the pure perception of the instant.
Etymologically, “disaster” is derived from “without stars.” In his masterful “Critique of practical reason,” Kant beautifully wrote: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Further reflection would allow us to recognize that the grieta in South America or polarization more broadly is a self-inflicted punishment in which we suffer the fate we wish upon our supposed enemy. Harmony is to be in order, and economic order is impossible without harmony.
Hegel’s idea of “totality” is not constructed by the actions of individual parts that constitute a pluralism, but, as a “stable equilibrium of all the parts […] one that, in itself, keeps the parts linked in their freedom.”
It was Hegel who indicated that truth is found in reconciliation and mediation:
“The parts and their particular oppositions,” he added, “are not preserved ones against the others in a state of true autonomy and firmness, rather they remain valid only as ideal instants, reconciled in free consonance.”
The previous presidential administration in Argentina was not, as some have argued, successful politically and a failure economically: our grieta signified its political failure; the economic meltdown, its metastasis.
The political triumph of polarization in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres can be explained by “collective narcissism.” A piece written in The Washington Post defined it thusly: “Collective narcissism is a lot like individual narcissism in that it involves emotional dependence on others’ admiration. The difference is that collective narcissists seek privilege and recognition for groups they belong to. They constantly monitor their environment for validation and are hypersensitive to threats to the in-group’s image. [Their] default reaction to having the in-group image threatened is intergroup aggression.
When the in-group is, in their view, criticized or insufficiently recognized, collective narcissists attack back and rejoice in the out-group’s misfortunes.
“The negative emotionality of collective narcissism is associated with a vulnerable individual narcissism that indicates low psychological well-being: lack of satisfaction with life and the inability to experience self-transcendent emotions as gratitude, appreciate positive aspects of the experience, feel grateful for something or for someone, or with the compassion to sympathize with the suffering of others.” On the contrary, “positive social identifications provide psychological resources that support individual well-being, clear self-definition, increased self-esteem, sense of direction and direction, and sense of true social connection.”
Recognizing the increasingly relevant role of polarization in politics in the XXI century is an objective fact. Yet, it is worth clarifying that it is still an interpretation that its psychogenesis stems from a narcissism spawned from minor differences along with the pathological construction of identity in the process of individuation.